Richard Panik's highlight-reel first NHL goal Saturday night might have surprised many.
The rookie wing's milestone tally was memorable. He flipped a cross-crease pass to himself over Carolina goalie Dan Ellis before zipping around the net to backhand the puck in.
But AHL Syracuse coach Jon Cooper, very familiar with Panik's flair, says just wait.
"That won't be the last time you're going to be like, 'Holy cow!' " Cooper said. "That kid, he's really, really talented. When he's playing with confidence like that, he can do unbelievable things."
Take, for example, Panik's series-clinching goal for then-Lightning affiliate AHL Norfolk in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals. It was Game 6 against Connecticut, with the Admirals up three games to two. In the third period, Panik, 22, took a shot to the face, forcing him to leave the game and get 20 stitches.
Five minutes into overtime, Panik reappeared on the Norfolk bench. "I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh, Panik is back,' " Cooper said.
Cooper put Panik on the ice, and on his first shift, he scored on a breakaway, doing an "around the world" move — circling the puck — before scoring.
"He went right from the training table to the bench to the ice, then back to the locker room for the celebration," Cooper said. "He has every tool you need to be a prototypical power forward. He's got size, he's got strength, he's got speed and a shot. He's got it all. It's just a matter of him putting it together on a consistent basis."
Panik is getting a long look by the Lightning while veteran Ryan Malone recovers from a lower-body injury and should play in his eighth NHL game tonight against Buffalo. Panik has been used on the fourth line, usually logging fewer than 10 minutes, because Tampa Bay wants the 6-foot-1, 208-pound forward to grow into a complete player.
"We know his offensive game is just lethal," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "He's a big, fast body that has unbelievable skill. And it's good for him to gain that identity of being good defensively."
Lightning player development coach Steve Thomas said Panik's consistency has improved since the beginning of last season, when he was often a healthy scratch for Norfolk. Thomas said Panik would have a couple good games, then a "couple stinkers."
Panik, a second-round draft pick in 2009, said he had to fight for a spot in the lineup, but the scorer from Slovakia continued to work, humbled by the situation and by frequent meetings with Cooper.
"I think it was good for me because until then I was playing a lot, and I think coach Cooper kind of opened my eyes," Panik said. "He showed me I have to work hard to earn the spot. I'm glad I did it, and it's good."
Panik said when a couple of teammates got hurt, he finally got his chance just after New Year's. He finished strong, tallying 19 goals and 22 assists, helping the Admirals win the AHL title.
"Some guys can rise above it, and some guys don't," Cooper said. "And Richard rose above it pretty quickly."
Panik said he's starting to feel more comfortable and confident, getting used to the NHL game. But Cooper said Panik still has some improvement to make.
"He has to work on his goal celebrations."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]